“We Wouldn’t Choose These Conditions” – Conversations about Mental Illness

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10 October marks World Mental Health Day. The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes it as a day with the overall objective of “raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilising efforts in support of mental health”. According to a study done by the Institute of Mental Health in 2016, 1 in 7 adults experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, but at the same time, more than 75 per cent of individuals with mental health conditions do not seek professional help.

As part of efforts to remove the stigma associated with mental illness, and promote open conversations about mental health, we ask five young adults about what it’s like to live with a mental illness. Through a series of interviews, they share experiences about their diagnosis, and how they have learned to cope with their symptoms.

Descending into darkness

“I felt like I was descending further and further into darkness with every month that passed, and I had reached my physical and emotional limits in terms of trying to “fix” myself.” – Allison, 24

Allison was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at the age of 23, after experiencing a series of bizarre events that resulted in physical symptoms such as constant fevers. She is currently on two types of medication, an antidepressant, and an atypical antipsychotic, on top of monthly sessions with her psychologist.

Explaining to others and being judged

One of the biggest struggles for Allison was having to explain her symptoms to the people around her. “Talking to my parents about it was actually quite a challenge and I only managed to do so a few months after being diagnosed because I didn’t know how to explain what I was going through or what led me to seek professional help. I was also rather afraid because of the stigma surrounding mental health disorders that are a lot more prevalent in the older generations.”

She shares that she also had to deal with religious acquaintances, who attributed her condition to wrongdoings on her part: “[…] the people in church have said several things that had the common theme of making me feel like my diagnosis was a punishment […]; I felt like I was being condemned for my diagnosis. It was very frustrating at first, but eventually I let go of the responsibility of educating them because I realised that [not all of them] would listen.”

Trying to be strong

“You feel like running and sleeping, celebrating and mourning, nothing satisfies […]; I tried to be strong and ignore my emotional and mental state but always caved to it, I was never able to overcome it and ultimately felt weak.” – Sam, 30

A pastor who frequently works with youth and migrant workers, Sam is extremely open when it comes to talking about his mental illness. “I have Bipolar Disorder (BPD) 2 and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). BPD2 is different from BPD1. When you experience a high and a low in BPD2 you are still rational but when you have BPD1 you are not. For this reason, it was difficult to really come to understand that I had bipolar as opposed to just being an extreme/intense person LOL. I often experienced something called a ‘mixed-state’ which result[ed] [in me] feeling both high and low at the same time.

Keeping it under wraps

Growing up in a family that placed a huge emphasis on being mentally strong, Sam struggled to understand why he was unable to cope with the symptoms at first. “The biggest struggle was my reliance on my family’s opinion […], [they] denied that I had any real mental health issues”.

Even after his diagnosis, his family still preferred to keep it “under wraps”. Thankfully, his wife and close friends were supportive of him taking steps to manage his mental health. Although he still faces people who do not understand that mental illness is a medical condition, he has learnt to take it in his stride: “It’s just based on ignorance and a simplistic mind, something no one should be offended by. Be bigger than it and if you can, educate them. Instead of laughing these days, with a smile, I explain how real the problem is and what people face when they go through depression and mental illness.”

No longer able to repress

“I was in a state where I couldn’t help myself anymore when I started having passive suicidal ideation that quickly escalated to active ideation. That eventually scared me enough to seek help.” – Charmaine, 24

Beset with a series of major life changes, from graduating university, getting a new job, dealing with tension at home, and losing a relationship, Charmaine quickly found herself catapulting into a depressive state that she was no longer able to repress in order to be functional. After seeking professional help, she was diagnosed with Depression, PTSD and BPD3.

Sharing the experience with others

Although she received little support from her family, and is still trying to get them to understand her condition, she has found much comfort in understanding her own diagnosis and reading about others’ experiences with mental illness on social media.
She attributes her openness in discussing her mental illness to how she has seen many come forth to speak about theirs.

“It’s something I think is only fair to reciprocate and replicate. I have been as open about my conditions and my experiences on social media and just the overwhelming support I’ve received from friends at my lowest points […] really got me through terribly dark days. Mental illnesses have a way of making you feel very isolated in your suffering and sharing my experience has largely eliminated that feeling for me (when it does arise).”

Identifying and managing triggers

“It is a tough journey, you have to identify triggers, know when you are about to get triggered, when you are triggered, and learn to pull back and gain control so you don’t hurt and upset people around you.” – Ben, 27

Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia at the age of 10, Ben had to go through special classes to help him manage his attention span while he was in school. “I get people making fun of my spelling and it upsets me because sometimes I really can’t help it. I could read something a bunch of times only for there to be an error that I didn’t notice.”

Nothing to be ashamed of

Later on in his life, he was also diagnosed with PTSD. Ben began going for therapy sessions, where he learned how to identify and manage his triggers. He admits that although some around them are still unable to understand his behaviour, he is thankful that the people closest to him are aware of his triggers, and are supportive of his recovery journey.

At a greater level, he hopes that society will be able to better understand mental health issues, and be able talk about them. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about, the stigma will only go away if we normalise conversations on mental health.”

Non-linear healing journey

“One of the issues I find most difficult to explain is the non-linear progression of healing […], you also don’t want your friends to feel their efforts are wasted,” – Fiona, 26

Although she has not been formally diagnosed by a mental health professional, Fiona has been experiencing bouts of anxiety and depression since she was 15.

Coping mechanisms

“I have noticed signs of anxiety, particularly in social settings, often resulting in panic attacks and I also found myself engaging in self-soothing methods and coping mechanisms such as picking on my skin and rubbing my hands aggressively […]; I’ve [also] experienced extended low moods, lasting over the span of weeks to months, at times involving suicidal thoughts and attempts. I have engaged in self-harm behaviours as well.”

This year, she started going for counselling sessions after being referred by a mentor at work, which has helped her to understand how to manage her symptoms better. One of the difficulties that Fiona faces is that explaining her symptoms can sometimes trigger a panic attack. “Getting emotional and failing to adequately explain everything unfortunately discredits the actual issue you were trying to convey, but your body simply starts reacting in ways you can’t explain or control.”

Symptoms come and go

Because her symptoms come and go, she also finds it difficult to explain her situation to others. “It’s hard to explain why I’m seemingly in a worse state than I was two weeks ago, for example, because it’s not that I wasn’t progressing, but I don’t want my friends to feel like their efforts are wasted, because I know they genuinely want me to get better.”

When asked what she thinks is one of the causes of misconceptions about mental illness, she brings up the casual use of mental health-related words, such as the terms anxiety and depression. “When people use it as a slang, it undermines the experiences of those who are actually struggling with these issues.”

“What is one thing you’d like others to know about mental illness?”

To end off the interview, we asked Allison, Sam, Charmaine, Ben, and Fiona what they’d like to say to the general public about mental illness. These are their responses:

  • “Your presence is the best support that you can provide to someone struggling with a mental health disorder.”
  • “I believe it’s important to never forget your past, not to dwell on [it] but to build up, not just yourself, but others that experience similar hardship.”
  • “A kind word goes a long way. It can be that one memory of kindness extended when everything felt so impossibly chaotic that pushes someone to get off the ledge they’re sitting on, instead of letting their feelings push them off that very ledge.”
  • “It is okay to be a work in progress.”
  • “We are not a computer program that needs troubleshooting in every conversation. Especially because the healing process isn’t instant, we don’t expect answers that would magically remove us from our struggles. While it could be well-meaning that someone tries to engage in a conversation, oftentimes a ‘thank you for sharing, I appreciate your vulnerability’ is good enough.”

 

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